Eastern Cape head of transport Irene Mpolweni has been suspended over the downgrade of the Mthatha airport. Photo: Supplied.

EAST LONDON - The Eastern Cape's head of transport, Irene Mpolweni, has called her suspension related to the downgrading of Mthatha Airport a "smokescreen". 

In January, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) downgraded the facility from level four to level three because of a lack of necessary security and technological upgrades that deviated from civil aviation regulations. 

The downgrade resulted in the suspension of large commercial airliners - SA Airlink and SA Express - flying between Johannesburg and Mthatha.  The airport was returned to level four by mid-February. 

In his state of the province address (Sopa) last week, Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle said there would be "consequences" for those found to be responsible for the downgrade. 

Speaking to African News Agency (ANA) on Friday, Mpolweni said that she was aware of the suspension, but had not been "officially informed". 

ANA understands the news was relayed via her colleagues. 

"I have sorted the issues of Mthatha Airport and it was restored back to category four on [February 15]; it is back into operation now. I actually built that airport when I arrived in this portfolio in 2014 after several efforts to rebuild it were abandoned," said Mpolweni. 

She said she had already suspended officials that were 'responsible for the downgrade". 

Mpolweni said there was an attempt to "capture" the provincial department of transport and accused finance MEC Oscar Mabuyane of leading the charge.

"There have been efforts by Mabuyane to take over the department of transport," she said. 

She also questioned the appointment of the province's deputy director general for Treasury, Joe Mhlomi, to act in her position. 

"Why are they not appointing an internal candidate? Why are they insisting on bringing Mhlomi to transport? This is not the first time that he replaces me. When there was a taxi strike he was appointed to lead the task team to deal with the taxi issue. I was puzzled by his appointment because he is not part of the transport department," said Mpolweni. 

She said her lawyers would be dealing with the suspension.

According to Eastern Cape government spokesperson Sonwabo Mbananga: "[The suspension] is in line with consequence management that the Premier has indicated will be implemented in this case. The precautionary suspension is to respect due processes and to allow the space for investigation." 

African News Agency (ANA)